Since the financial crisis of 2008, we’ve been presented with one example after another of the increasing disparity between the haves and have-nots in American society. Billionaires comprise the 1/10th of one percent and millionaires make up the other 9.9 percent of that gilded group that actually is prospering in our capitalist system.
The remaining ninety percent of us exist in a state of uncertainty. Some of us are treading water, some are steadily losing ground, and far too many are mired in poverty. At best, most are living on credit, one paycheck away from destitution. The majority can’t produce $400 in cash without borrowing it HERE. The richest nation in the world is showing us the current state of the American Dream in pretty bleak terms. The vast majority of us are nowhere near achieving it.
One would think the disenfranchised ninety percent would work in solidarity toward a more equitable financial opportunity. Demand that “level playing field” we hear so much about and find so elusive. One would think this mass of citizenry so clearly mistreated by tax policy would direct its anger and frustration toward the privileged few who pay little or nothing while amassing unimaginable wealth. One would think that, but it’s not so.
Like slugs craving salt, they turn their anger on each other. Maybe it’s too daunting to tackle the rich. They’re better armed and have so much more to defend. A fool’s errand. Easier to attack those in your own straights. Like you, they are busy trying to keep the wolf from the door. Like you, they are frustrated, angry, distracted, and often hopeless. Much easier targets for our wrath.
Divide and conquer is a strategy that serves the dividers at the cost of the divided. Seemingly it’s human nature to accept any depredation as long as someone on a lower rung of the ladder suffers even more. “Better than them” is salve enough apparently to soothe the pain of being little better than a serf.
We have skillfully been sold the tale that dedication and hard work will earn the just rewards of free enterprise. For some it is true. The 10 percent that prospers. They are the validation of that essential aspiration that animates our economic enterprise. Do the work and you’ll be rewarded, richly or at least pretty well.
In truth, the hardest working among us are often the most poorly paid. The middle class has largely disappeared from the modern American social structure. The average workers today are poorer in real dollars than they were fifty years ago HERE. Two generations later, children are unlikely to do better financially or even as well as their parents. Upward mobility is solely the purview of the ten percent today. One wonders what they’ve done to earn it.
These are the junior members of what George Carlin called The Big Club. “It’s the big club,” he said to the rest of us, “and you ain’t in it.” HERE. The core belief that their wealth and privilege are earned is what separates them in their own mind from the riffraff and assuages the “anxieties of affluence” HERE.
The promise that great prosperity would follow tax relief has been demonstrably true for the gifted 10 percent but devastating for the rest of us.
A look at effective corporate tax rates shows the trend vividly, but income taxes fall more unfairly on the ninety percent, even as the wealthy are lightly burdened and the very rich are for all intents exempt HERE.
Our “progressive” income tax structure can be seen HERE. These tables focus on income rather than wealth. If you have a good job and an income in six figures, you may well be paying a third or more in taxes. However, if you have a decent accountant, you’re likely paying far less. You’re investing in all those tax deferred and exempt places that funnel money to the very rich. And if you’re really rich, you simply don’t take salary. You accumulate tax deferred assets and borrow what you need to live on at very low interest, which interest of course is tax deductible. Hey, Jamie Dimon has to eat, too.
We’ve always believed that anger is what drives the divisions in our country and inequity drives anger. Groups at the lower end of the prosperity ladder have so successfully been turned against each other, divided by gender, race, ethnicity, heritage, urban/rural, all the most insipid but effective ways to differentiate, categorize, and make a target of others. If you’re poor or struggling, you have a lot more in common with the rest of the 90% than the things that differentiate you. We all sense the steep tilt of the playing field, and when you’re always pushing uphill while others at the upper end of privilege are merely rolling the ball down at you, it can piss you off.
There used to be a middle class that was the aspiration of those “poor and huddled masses” flocking to this country and The American Dream. Work hard, play the game, kiss ass, and you may make it. That altar of capitalism where we genuflect and even our literary canon attest to that belief system and cite the many examples among the rest who’ve risen above the fray by doing what they’re told to do.
What can we conclude now that the middle class is disappearing? HERE. What does that say about the promise that motivates our social order. We look at it and see the 1/10 of one percent of society on our American Olympus, and the other 9.9 percent of that gilded group who are vigorously carrying their baggage for a sliver of that luxurious lifestyle. Then we see the rest of the American people at various stages of indentured servitude, hanging by various levels of indebtedness above the abyss. Too often, they console themselves by saying, at least I’m not as low as those ignorant (fill in the blank). Or, those (blank) think they’re better than us, like their poo don’t stink.
Right wing anger rises from failure to stem change in our society HERE. Left wing anger from a world that doesn’t understand the wisdom of doing their bidding HERE. But that anger is for the peons. The way we’re distracted from where the source of our discord truly resides. The rich don’t care. One side or the other can pretend to power, but as long as they exercise it over the other side rather than direct it at their oppressor, it’s cool. Life goes on. Market does well. The billionaires avoid taxes. All is right with the world. At least the 10 percent we care about. The rest are busy hating each other. Slugs for salt! Yes!
Our society has always been divided. The Civil War, Reconstruction, Labor relations, the Civil Rights struggles, the controversy over the Vietnam War, as examples. Even the nostalgic recall of the last “good” war ignores a nation riven by controversy and motivated in its participation purely by reactionary impulse HERE.
The issues may differ, the sides rearrange, but the beneficiaries are the same. What is changing, like the benefits of capitalism itself, is that the machine draws an ever finer point in its means of extracting riches from the system. Not only is that wealth accruing to fewer and fewer people, but the measures that divide the rest of us are ever more extreme in order to continue attracting the slugs. No matter that the landscape is littered with the dehydrated corpses of your brethren, that saline solution really is exactly what you need. Trust us.
“The nation,” Richard Hofstadter said in his mid-20th century book American Violence: A Documentary History, “seems to slouch onward into its uncertain future like some huge inarticulate beast, too much tainted by wounds and ailments to be robust, but too strong and resourceful to succumb.” JAMELLE BOUIE
Some sixty years later, the elasticity has been stretched perhaps to the breaking point. What then should we think about this lumbering beast that is American society divided by hatred, frustrations, anger? Is there reason to hope something different can be achieved or only endurance for more of the same to be mustered?
We personally believe the issues are so large and so ingrained that a fundamental changes necessary if we are to have any hope of redirecting our society toward a common good. The rich will always be rich and life is unlikely to ever be fair. But we believe it can be less exploitative, and in being so, can be less riven by anger.
We’ve written repeatedly about Universal Basic Income HERE and why it is an idea whose time has come. It offers much to improve our society and the mechanisms that drive it. Creating a true safety net for the American people can be accomplished without draconian changes. We’ve already cited references to those ideas and examples where it has been demonstrated HERE. But one thing worth repeating is that basic income applies to urban and rural, black and white, fundamentalist and wild-eyed liberal alike. It provides a level of support to people at the bottom of the economic system and would do a lot, we believe, to lessen the anger that attends them.